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Turnbullying in Work or Play | Really Little Wins

I live a pretty hectic life. I’ve got my kids full time, my work, and my health to consider. I know many of us do. I’m not in a small boat. But there is something that I do that I wish more people did which is make time for some personal enjoyment. I do this in a number of ways. There’s dedicated family time on the weekends, keeping up with a couple of television shows and getting the latest EA Sports NHL game the day it comes out. But nothing compares to my Thursday nights.

Every Thursday evening, I get together with a few close friends for an evening of gaming adventure. We play a wide variety of board games but our regular gaming experience is playing Dungeons & Dragons. If you’ve never played D&D, I’ll give you the real quick version. It is a fantasy role playing game where characters develop skills over time by battling monsters and solving puzzles and mysteries. It is the foundation of games like World of Warcraft and is one of the most popular “board” games of all time, with more than 20 million players and over $1b in book and accessory sales. And there’s a pretty simple reason that it’s been so successful; it’s great.

One of my favourite things about D&D is the team work aspect of the game. It was the first game that I ever played that was cooperative rather than competitive and this idea of a shared goal has shaped both my gaming experience as well as my personal ideologies.

Our team is… interesting.

One of the things (honestly, one of the only things) that I miss about working with a unified team in a physical location is the degree to which cooperation is required. Certainly in my current role much of our focus is on cooperation but that cooperation is predominantly after the fact. We’re a remote team which means that we plan, do and review in a very unique manner, without much interaction during the “do” phase. In most jobs, the “do” phase is physically cooperative. Questions, comments and concerns all go back and forth in real time, but when you’re working remotely, that’s just not the case.

I’ve experienced this in the gaming world as well. We once worked on a remote game where players wrote in their plans to the person running the game, known as the Dungeon Master or DM, and then they would send out a “here’s what happened” report. Sometimes I feel like running a remote digital agency is a lot like be a remote, digital DM. There are advantages such as the ability to bring together people that certain constraints would eliminate, but there is certainly something lost when you take away true, real time communication. The biggest challenge as a business owner and as a leader has been keeping this intact.

So in Dungeons & Dragons, you’re faced with an obstacle and you’re asked, in turn, what you are going to do in order to help the team overcome that obstacle. The order changes with each obstacle which means sometimes you’re going to lead the way and other times you’re left cleaning up after others, but the interesting thing is that you get to see, as a team, what everyone is going to do. There is however, a problem with this way of handling teamwork and our team calls it Ferngullying.

Ferngullying is the term our team uses to refer to turn-bullying. Turn-bullying in gaming is a pretty simple thing to understand. When you attempt to impose your will on a character to make them do something that you want them to do on their turn, that’s turn-bullying. Sometimes it’s ok. It makes sense if you provide information that they don’t know and then suggest an action; “hey, if you do this, I’m able to do this on my turn.” And it’s ok when the individual has clearly not realized something important, “hey, the monster you’re going to hit is going to die next turn anyways due to bleed damage so why don’t you focus on someone else.” But that’s not how we roll.

“You do this, you do this, you do this, and you do this, then I’ll do this when it’s my turn” is a common battlecry that comes from those whose turn is further down the line. It makes for a pretty boring gaming experience and often leads to tension among the team…and it’s not limited to gaming. I’m sure that if you think back you can remember a work experience where a peer has laid out your plans for you, independent of any consideration for your goals and needs. It’s fun, right?

Autonomy and responsibility are two components of any experience whose importance cannot be overstated. Having some aspect of choice and being counted on can often help turn a job around for the better. I’ve written about this a number of times. People want to believe (even if it’s not true) that their work and their life has meaning. Believing (or realizing) that it doesn’t is not a lot of fun. And this goes for games or for work. Discovering that people around you don’t respect your decision making, your thought process or your ability can be incredibly damaging. It’s why, in our games, the act of ferngullying is treated with more disdain and a bad roll or a poorly conceived plan.

What does all this mean? In the end, it’s all about teamwork. Whether you’re the north star guiding your organization or the dude that mops up after everyone is gone, you have to feel as though you’re a respected part of the team. And that’s something that just happens. Even within our group, a group of incredibly close friends, maintaining that respectful relationship will continue to be a challenge. But it’s worth it, because if you do it right you can talk an evil red dragon into letting you take some pretty awesome treasures.